How To Distress Painted Furniture

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You could wait through decades of daily use for your painted furniture to develop a distressed, aged look, or you could go ahead and give it that well-worn appearance with a little bit of paint and technique, all over a weekend.

If you love the shabby chic, country, colonial or funky, eclectic look, then distressed, painted furniture will work perfectly with your style. It's not difficult to do, and there are several methods to choose from.

Choosing Furniture To Distress

You can give an aged look to just about any piece of wooden furniture. If you choose a piece with a very glossy, lacquer finish, however, the preparation will be much more strenuous, as you will need to sand away all the lacquer.

Chairs, tables and hutches are particularly suited for distressing, but don't overlook potential choices such as bed frames, armoires, bookcases or wooden cabinets.

A beautifully aged entertainment center or armoire will be the star of your living room, crackled dining room chairs will be conversation pieces at your next dinner party, and a wiped-finish bed frame will add romance to your bedroom.


Your choice of distressing technique will depend on the end result you are hoping for, and how many colors you want to use on your painted piece.

Ready for Planting Finished Product

One-Color Simple Technique

This is the easiest method to age furniture, and a good choice if you are starting with a piece that is unfinished or stained a natural wood tone.

If you have an item of furniture that is already painted, but lacks that well-worn style, you can skip the directions on painting, and just follow the tips for aging the painted finish.

You will need:

  • Medium grit sandpaper
  • Fine grit sandpaper
  • Tacky rag
  • Latex paint
  • Small paintbrush for trim
  • Medium paintbrush for larger areas

1. Remove any hardware, such as knobs, hinges or drawer pulls.

2. If you are working on a piece with drawers or doors, remove them to paint separately.

3. Sand away any existing finish or unwanted paint with medium grit sandpaper. Dust with a tacky rag to remove grit and sawdust.

4. Paint your piece, starting with the edges or trim. Load your paintbrush evenly, and make small, smooth strokes with the brush, all running in the same direction.

5. Paint the main body of the furniture, taking care to use even strokes of the brush.

6. Paint any drawer fronts, removed doors and shelves.

7. Let the paint dry for several hours, or overnight.

8. Using the fine grit sandpaper, rub away paint in areas that would naturally be handled the most. Gently sand in small, back-and-forth movements over the edges of the piece, near corners, by handles or knobs, and along the upper edges. Work slowly and carefully.

9. Step back periodically, and examine your piece with a critical eye, looking for a balanced, naturally aged appearance.

10. When you are satisfied with your distressing job, wipe the furniture down with a rag to remove sanding dust, then replace any removed hardware, drawers or doors.

Crackle Technique

Crackling gives a two-color finish, and looks especially weatherworn and primitive. You can crackle over an existing coat of paint if there is no varnish or polyurethane finish, or start with unfinished or wood-tone furniture.

Choose two colors of paint that have a lot of contrast for an eclectic, striking look, or use colors that are close in tone for a subtle, primitive or colonial style.

You will need:

  • Crackle medium
  • Two colors of paint
  • Small trim paintbrushes
  • Medium paintbrushes
  • Rags
  • Polyurethane protective spray

If you are starting with an unfinished or wood-tone piece, follow steps 1 through 7 below. If you are crackling furniture that already has a desired coat of paint, follow steps 1 through 3 below, sanding only to remove varnish or gloss.

Once your furniture has a dry base coat of paint, continue on with the next steps.

1. Cover all surfaces of your painted piece with crackle medium, applying it like a coat of paint. Your final results will depend on the thickness of the crackle medium: the thicker the coat, the larger the cracks.

2. Let the crackle medium dry for two hours.

3. Paint your furniture with the second color of paint. Follow the same technique for painting given above, but be careful not to brush over the same area twice, as this will interfere with the crackling effect.

4. The cracks will begin to appear immediately, and continue to spread while the paint is drying.

5. Let the furniture dry overnight.

6. Spray with a protective polyurethane coating to protect the finished piece from unwanted damage. Let dry for several hours, or overnight.

7. Replace any hardware, doors or drawers that were removed.

Wipe-away Technique

For a subtle, beautifully textured, distressed effect on an unfinished or wood-tone piece, use wood stain, rather than paint, tinted in decorator colors. Minwax is one brand that is easily found in home improvement centers, and comes in a wide range of colors.

Choose two or three colors that work well together. Similar tones will produce a subdued effect; contrasting colors will be vivid and bright.

You will need:

  • Two or three colors of decorator wood stain
  • Clean rags
  • Paintbrushes

1. Follow the preparation steps 1 through 3 in the One-Color Simple Technique above.

2. Stir your first color of stain, then use a paintbrush to smooth it over the furniture. Use short strokes all going in the same direction, but do not worry about achieving perfect coverage. Stain all surfaces of the piece.

3. Immediately wipe across the fresh stain with a clean rag. Wipe gently, moving in the same direction as the wood grain.

4. Let the stain dry for 2 hours, then repeat with the second color of stain.

5. After another 2 hours, finish with your final color, if you have chosen to use three hues.

6. Let the piece dry overnight before replacing hardware, drawers or shelves.

Once you discover how easy it is to distress furniture, and how wonderful the results are, you will want to have a piece in every room of your home.

Last Updated: December 19, 2011
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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